One of LA’s oldest community gardens thrived for decades. Then the water wars began
For more than 40 years, Italian, Mexican, Croatian, Filipino, Indonesian and Laotian gardeners have built productive mini-farms on the parcels. Jason Neubert / Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — The old Italian men pass their mornings near the top of the hill, tending thick grape vines and rows of fava beans, smoking crumbling Toscano cigars, staying out of the house. If you try to call Francesco “Frank” Mitrano at home, his wife will brusquely tell you that he’s at “the farm.”
The farm is a patch of soil by the 110 Freeway, where he harvests enough tomatoes from his crop to make spaghetti sauce for his family’s weekly Sunday dinner. “Twenty-one people,” he exclaims.
A half-century ago, Filipino seafarers re-created a piece of the old country on this weedy hillside in San Pedro.
Italian fishermen quickly joined them, as did others with horticultural skills honed all over the world — Mexico, Laos, India, Japan, Indonesia, Croatia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Arizona and Lawndale.
More than 250 parcels are connected by a maze of trails and pipes and hoses. Avocado trees soar as high as 60 feet. Giant banana leaves, ratoons of sugar cane and bright orange guavas — set amid a jumble of sheds, trellises, fences and retaining walls — give the hill the look of a rural village carved from jungle.
The community garden — thought to be the oldest in Los Angeles — grew quietly and off the grid, with unlimited water and little oversight.
But now, in a time of drought, it faces an existential crisis after the city drastically cut its water supply.
Though the heavy rains helped last year, the plots they have nurtured for decades are getting thirstier every day.
Mitrano, 83, barrel-chested with a burl of a nose and a sail rigger’s forearms, sneered at the hose that dribbled at his feet.
“No hay presion,” said Mitrano, using Spanish, the lingua franca of the garden. There is no water pressure.